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Opportunities for Girls and Women In Sports: Vast Improvement But Still Work To Do

On June 19, 1999, I was privileged to witness a truly magical happening: the opening ceremonies and games of the 1999 Women's World Cup. From my seat on the fifty-yard line at a sold-out Giants Stadium I was one of 78,972 fans comprising, to that point, the largest crowd in the history of women's sports and of Giants Stadium.

Many in the crowd couldn't wait for this special moment, arriving the night before in their vans and motor homes or early on game day to tailgate in the parking lot on a hot, sunny day in the New Jersey Meadowlands. What I remember most were all of the young girls in the stands, especially the large throng of GU14 (Girls Under Fourteen) soccer players sporting Mia Hamm jerseys and smiles full of braces - girls dreaming of one day playing for their country. 

Pre-Title IX women

For one group of fans the opening ceremonies and the games that followed (a 6-0 blowout by Brazil over Mexico followed by the main event - a stellar 3 - 0 victory by the U.S. over Denmark), the moment was especially poignant: women and mothers, who, like me, grew up in the days before 1972, the year the passage of Title IX ushered in a new era for women's sports by mandating that girls and young women be given the same opportunity to play sports as boys.

We were women who, at best, were offered three or four sports to play in high school, or, if we weren't so lucky, were all competing for eight spots on the cheerleading squad. We were the women who went to women's colleges just so we could play the sports we were never given a chance to play in high school (like lacrosse, squash and soccer); the women who, having been denied the opportunity to play sports when we were young, were now working hard to make sure our daughters are given the same chance as our sons to play sports.


I shed tears of joy at the playing of the National Anthem and during the introduction of Donna de Verona, who, as Co-Chairperson of the World Cup, two-time Olympic gold medal winning swimmer, pioneering woman sportscaster, and co-founder of the Women's Sports Foundation, had done so much to advance the cause of women's sports over the years. When Mia Hamm and the American team paused before the game to applaud us, the pre-Title IX athletic women, it gave me chills. How fitting to be saluted by Hamm, a woman born the same year as Title IX.

Second-Class Citizens

Yet, as soccer players representing each of the sixteen participating nations stood at the center of the field and, in strong, clear voices, proudly recited in their native languages the World Cup's slogan ("This is my game! This is my future! Watch me play!"), I knew that, as far as girls and women had come in sports since 1972, many challenges remained (and, more than a decade later, still remain):

  • Far too many girls drop out of sports when they reach puberty.
  • Gender stereotyping of female athletes as "unfeminine" continues.
  • The media still treats female athletes as second-class citizens.
  • There are still too few women coaches, female athletic role models and mentors.
  • The increased opportunities for girls to play youth sports seem to have come at the cost of their values: instead of being able to play sports the way they are naturally inclined to play - in a process-oriented, collective, inclusive, and supportive way emphasizing relationships and responsibilities, girls are forced to play under the same hypercompetitive, highly commercialized model that evolved in boys' sports.
With the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer team in the final for the first time since 1999, and the spotlight shining brightly - at least temporarily - on women athletes, it is time once again to honor and value women athletes in all sports, not just for a three-week span, but all year long.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

Updated and revised September 25, 2011


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